January 5, 2015 by bluenosebible
Blyth Spartans 2-3 Birmingham City
Written by: Nat Peters
It’s unlikely that Blues or Blyth Spartans will forget their first ever meeting in a hurry. Football Focus, BBC Five Live and talkSPORT all gave our game maximum coverage on Saturday whilst Match of the Day made it the first game they showed in the evening, and they were all vindicated as the teams contested what ended up being one heck of a cup tie.
I have to admit, before the game I was confident enough that we would turn over Blyth to put a bet on Blues winning with a minus two handicap; for the sensible people who don’t fritter money away in a bookies every weekend, that meant Blues had to win by at least three clear goals. But in the Masons Arms (a fantastic boozer by the way) by the ground before the game there was an edginess about many Blues fans that we would be the story of the Third Round for all the wrong reasons. The line-up selected by Gary Rowett with only Michael Morrison keeping his place from the team that beat Forest last week did little to dispel nervousness; would this untried team filled with players hopelessly short of match practice be able to handle this game?
Getting into the ground before kick-off, the first thing I noticed was the pitch. All credit to the Blyth personnel who clearly did their level best to keep its condition as pristine as possible, but it was clear that the Croft Park turf was quite a departure from what our pampered pros would be used to. There were more bobbles in the grass than you’d see on an old woolly jumper, and for the first time that day I had a gut feeling this was going to be a tricky afternoon for the boys in Royal Blue.
The game got underway, and Blues should have got an early goal which I suspect would have made the afternoon a lot more straightforward. From a corner Nikola Zigic headed what he thought was his first goal since his return to Blues, only for the referee Mike Jones to disallow it for a push on the Blyth defender marking him. Moments later Zigic again should have put us in front; good work down the right hand side by Lee Novak saw him centre a ball from the byline, falling perfectly to the big Serb ten yards out with the goal at his mercy. The subsequent miss (the ball went so far over the bar it nearly cleared the stand) was a howler, a proper stinker.
After that, the game meandered into scrappiness and sloppiness on the part of Blues players. Blyth got to grips with the task in hand more and more, and the Blyth fans were right behind their side; “We are Blyth” incessantly ringing around the stands draped in banners. They could smell blood, they could sense that they had a chance as Blues started to visibly struggle with the unfamiliar surroundings they found themselves in. Mitchell Hancox spooned several clearances into the stand and some of Colin Doyle’s kicking left a lot to be desired. Blues players were struggling to regain anything like their earlier rhythm and were losing out in fifty-fifty challenges galore, never a good sign.
One of those challenges between the Blyth left back and Lee Novak saw the former comfortably win the ball. He sent it down the left hand side to skilful Jarret Rivers, who cut inside Neal Eardley to roll the ball across the six yard box and centre-halves Morrison and David Edgar could only watch as it went to the back post. Hancox failed to clear in time to prevent Robbie Dale coming in to slam the ball home. 1-0 Blyth.
Blyth were now all over Blues. Dale (a man who could surely have played several levels higher up the footballing pyramid) in particular was running the show, and he scored again after forty minutes. Guy Moussi, whose performance thus far had resembled a chicken minus its head, gave away a free kick on the left hand corner of Blues’ penalty area. The ball was tapped to Dale, who cut inside and ran straight towards goal with Callum Reilly unable to stop him and shot. Blues’ defenders parted like the Red Sea to allow the ball to have a safe passage into the left hand corner of Doyle’s goal. 2-0 Blyth, oh no oh no oh no.
The worst part was it could have been three before half-time, Doyle tipping over a fierce shot literally on the referee’s whistle for the interval. The break came at the worst possible time for the home side and the best possible time for ourselves, just as Blyth were running us ragged. Blues had been abysmal since their early spell of dominance, too many aimless balls and too many lethargic players who simply weren’t up for the fight against their supposedly vastly inferior opponents. The only positives were that it was only 2-0 to Blyth and that we had a whole half of football to turn things around, but I have to confess that during the fifteen minutes rest time I was fairly sure that I was witnessing the sequel to the horrors of Altrincham and Kiddy Harriers that my Dad witnessed all those years ago.
That Blues re-emerged with the same set of players in the second-half was something of a surprise to many fans, who felt that Gary Rowett was sure to make changes. But whilst the personnel were the same the way we played was totally different. Blues were more direct, and immediately looked to stretch the Blyth backline. Our change in approach paid quick dividends; in a goal similar to Robbie Dale’s second, Lee Novak cut inside his marker and unleashed a shot from the edge of the penalty area which flew inside Peter Jeffries’ front post. All of a sudden the whole complexion of the game had changed, and just three minutes after the first Blues got their second of the afternoon. A long ball was chased down by Wes Thomas, who got it under control and shrugged off the Blyth centre-half to fire a left footed shot into the net, Jeffries again beaten at his near post. All square, but Blyth were demoralised and Blues were reinvigorated. The comeback was complete just a few moments later; a Mark Duffy corner was cleared but only straight back to the same player, who lifted an exquisite cross into the six yard box for the unmarked Thomas to head home his second of the game.
At that point, it seemed like Blues would go on and score a hatful. Blyth were seemingly physically and mentally drained, and the only logical conclusion was that the superior fitness and ability of Blues’ players would now come to the fore. But to their credit Spartans’ players regrouped and were once again on our case. Robbie Dale came near to completing his hat-trick with a rasping left footed drive that swerved just wide as Blues resettled into their haphazard state of the first half. Despite that, we were fairly comfortable dealing with Spartans’ attempts to get back into the match until the very end of the match, when they had two chances in quick succession in injury time. The first being a Danny Parker header at the back post from a corner kick which went just wide, and shortly after Koby Arthur giving the ball away cheaply led to striker Dan Maguire going through on goal. He managed to ease himself inside Michael Morrison, but blazed a left footed shot which smacked of tiredness over the bar from just outside the area and that was that.
Full time was a relief, and whilst Blues fans can be happy with winning the tie they know that we got an almighty scare. Blyth’s players and staff can take maximum credit for giving us one very, very tough afternoon and for not going under when things started to go against them – they showed real character and ability which if replicated week in, week out would see them fire up the league in no time. In general their fans were very hospitable, full of good banter inside and outside the ground and I hope that they enjoyed their day despite losing out. Whilst the day was enjoyable and it was a real novelty playing at a non-league ground, I wouldn’t want to be put through that again any time soon. The win belonged to Blues, but the plaudits were taken by Blyth.